Champagne


LL said a couple of nights ago, “We have any Champagne around this joint?” Not having any Champagne around the joint, I hopped in the old chariot, scooted to the nearest package store, as liquor stores used to be called, and snatched a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé from the refrigerator case. This gesture was, to be sure, an indulgence, but I had not tasted or written about the product in four years, so I thought it was time.

The mind-set among Champagne devotees nowadays is biased toward small artisan estates — preferably in the same family since 1782 and lying in one of the region’s more obscure patches — often set up as models of individuality and integrity against the large old-line houses that turn out hundreds of thousands or millions of bottles a year in a full roster of types and labels, but leveling everything down to a discernible “house-style.” Well, all right, I go along with that notion to a certain extent, who doesn’t love a dark horse, yet the grand producers sometimes benefit from decades of fine-tuning and a meticulously developed consistency that’s gratifying and comforting. Such is the case with the Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé. The firm began making a rosé Champagne in 1788 and departed from the region’s tradition of macerating black grapes in white wine to producing a rosé from black and white grapes together, in this contemporary model adding about 12 percent red wine to its typical Yellow Label base of pinot noir grapes (50-55 percent), pinot meunier (15-20 percent) and chardonnay (28-33 percent).

This entirely winsome Brut Rosé displays a lovely pale peach-copper hue vitalized by a constant surging froth of tiny silver bubbles. The ethereal bouquet wreathes hints of raspberry, pear and melon with burgeoning limestone and hints of biscuits and toasted almond. In the mouth, this Champagne offers crisp, resonant acidity and scintillating limestone minerality with touches of dried red fruit, fresh bread and cinnamon toast, all ensconced in a supple, silken texture. Charming and expressive, with a happy conjunction of power and elegance. 12.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. As happens with popular imported Champagnes, the range of prices for the Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé is astonishing; the East and West coasts will see prices from about $52 to $65, while in the great American heartland the tab can go up to $75 or even $85.

Imported by Moet Hennessy USA, New York


We made a quick trip to New York — up Friday morning, back Sunday afternoon — to celebrate a friend’s birthday with other friends we had not seen in three or four years. Naturally the festivities included a great deal of eating and drinking, as in a small dinner Friday, a large birthday bash dinner Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Here are notes, some brief and some not so brief, on the wines we tried.

Image of NYC skyline in the 1950s from airninja.com.
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This was a hit. For dinner we were having a casserole of chicken and sausage and onions and fresh herbs — which was deeply flavorful and delicious — at the B’day Girl’s place, and I thought “Something Côtes du Rhône-ish is called for.” She is fortunate enough to live right around the block from Le Dû’s Wines, the store of Jean-Luc Le Dû, former sommelier for Restaurant Daniel, and we traipsed over to see what was available. She wanted to buy a mixed case of wines, and I wanted to pick up a bottle of Champagne and whatever else piqued my interest.

l’Apostrophe 2009, Vin de Pays Méditerranée, caught my eye. The wine is made by Chante Cigale, a noted producer of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a pedigree that reveals itself in its full-bodied, rustic savory qualities. A blend of 70 percent grenache, 20 percent cinsault and 10 percent syrah and made all in stainless steel, the wine sports a dark ruby-purple hue and burgeoning aromas of spiced and macerated blackberries, red and black currants and plums. Black and blue fruit flavors are potently spicy and lavish, wrapped in smoky, fleshy, meaty elements and bolstered by a lithe, muscular texture and underlying mossy, briery and graphite qualities. I mean, hell, yes! This was great with the chicken and sausage casserole. Drink through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $15-$16, representing Real Value.

Imported by David Bowler Wine, New York. (The label image is one vintage behind.)
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Also at Le Dû’s Wines, I gave the nod to Domaine de Fontenille 2009, Côtes du Luberon, a blend of 70 percent grenache and 30 percent syrah produced by brothers Jean and Pierre Leveque. Côtes du Luberon lies east of the city of Avignon in the Southern Rhone region. This wine was a tad simpler than l’Apostrophe 2009, yet it packed the same sort of spicy, savory, meaty, fleshy wallop of macerated black and blue fruit scents and flavors ensconced in the earthy loaminess and soft but firm tannins of briers and brambles and underbrush. Now that prices for Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages have edged above $20 (and $30 even), wines such as Domaine de Fontenille and l’Apostrophe offer reasonable and authentic alternatives. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $14-$15.

Imported by Peter Weygandt, Washington D.C. (The label image is many vintages laggard but it’s what I could find.)
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With poached fennel-stuffed salmon, we drank the At Riesling 2009, Colli Orientale del Friuli, from Aquila dei Torre — eagle of the tower — which at two years old is as clean as a whistle, fresh and lively, and gently permeated by notes of spiced peach, pear and quince with a background of lychee, lime peel and limestone; there’s a hint of petrol or rubber eraser in the bouquet and a touch of jasmine. Made in stainless steel and spending nine months in tanks, At Riesling 09 offers crisp acidity and a texture cannily poised between ripe, talc-like softness and brisk, bracing, slightly austere spareness; the finish focuses on scintillating minerality in the limestone-slate range. The designation means “the eastern hills of Friuli.” Now through 2013. Very Good+. About $22.

Domenico Selections, New York.
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We drank the Campo San Vito 2004, Valpolicella Classico Superiori Ripasso, with roast beef at the B’Day Girl’s Big Dinner Bash. I first reviewed the wine in July 2009; here are the notes:

For wine, I opened the Campo San Vito Valpolicella 2004, Classico Superiore Ripasso, a wine that also conveyed a sense of intensity and concentration. Ripasso is a method in which certain Valpolicella wines are “refermented,” in the March after harvest, on the lees of Amarone wines; the process lends these wines added richness and depth. The color here is almost motor-oil black, with a glowing blue/purple rim; the bouquet is minty and meaty, bursting with cassis, Damson plums, smoke, licorice and lavender and a whole boxful of dried spices. Yes, this is so exotic that it’s close to pornographic, but the wine is not too easy, on the one hand, or overbearing, on the other, because it possesses the acid and tannic structure, as well as two years in oak, to express its purposeful nature and rigorous underpinnings. Flavors of black currant and plum, with a touch of mulberry, are permeated by spice, potpourri and granite, as if all ground together in a mortar; the finish, increasingly austere, gathers more dust and minerals. Quite an experience and really good with our dinner. Limited availability in the Northeast. Excellent. About $25.

What was the wine like two years later, at the age of seven? A lovely and beguiling expression of its grapes — corvina, molinara, rondinella — still holding its dark ruby hue and all violets and rose petals, tar and black tea and lavender, stewed plums and blueberries with an almost eloquent sense of firmness, mellow, gently tucked-in tannins and vivid acidity, but after 30 or 40 minutes, it began to show signs of coming apart at the seams, with acid taking ascendancy. Drink now. Very Good+ and showing its age, but everyone should hope to do so in such graceful manner.

Imported by Domenico Selections, New York.
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And two rosé wines:

The house of Couly-Dutheil produces one of my favorite Loire Valley rosés, so it’s not surprising that I found the Couly-Dutheil “René Couly” Chinon Rosé 2010 to be very attractive. This is 100 percent cabernet franc, sporting a classic pale onion skin hue with a blush of copper; so damned pretty, with its notes of dried strawberries and red currants over earthy layers of damp ash and loam and a bright undertone of spiced peach, all resolving to red currant and orange rind flavors and shades of rhubarb and limestone. Dry, crisp and frankly delightful. 13 percent alcohol. Drink through Spring 2012. Very Good+. About $19.

Imported by Cynthia Hurley, West Newton, Mass.

Ah, but here comes what could be the best rosé wine I have tasted. O.K., not to be extreme, one of the best rosés I have ever tasted.

L’audacieuse 2010, Coteaux de l’Ardeche, comes in a Big Deal heavy bottle with a deep punt (the indentation at the bottom); instead of being in a clear bottle, to show off the pretty rosé color, L’audacieuse 2010 is contained within a bottle of serious dark green glass. The producers of this prodigy, a blend of 50 percent syrah, 30 percent grenache and 20 percent cinsault, are Benoit and Florence Chazallon. The estate centers around the Chateau de la Selve, a fortified house built in the 13th Century. The grapes for L’audacieuse 2010 are grown under organic methods and fermented with natural yeasts, 1/2 in barriques and 1/2 in concrete vats; it aged six months in barriques. The color is pale but radiant onion skin or what the French call “eye of the partridge.” An enchanting yet slightly reticent bouquet of apples, lemon rind, orange zest and dried red currants wafts from the glass; in the mouth, well, the wine feels as if you were sipping liquid limestone suffused with some grapey-citrus-red fruit essence, enlivened by striking acidity and dry as a sun-bleached bone. While that description may make the wine sound formidable, especially for a rosé — and it is as audacious as its name — its real character embodies elegance and sophistication, integration and balance of all elements, but with something ineffably wild and plangent about it. This is, in a word, a great rosé. 13 percent alcohol. Production was all of 2,100 bottles and 80 magnums. Drink through Summer 2012. Excellent. About $30 and Worth a Search.

Imported by Metrowine Distribution Co., Stamford, Conn.
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I bought the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé so LL and I could toast our friend Saturday evening before going to her Big B’Day Bash. The house was founded in 1818, but the Billecart family has roots in Champagne going back to the 16th Century. According to Tom Stevenson, in the revised and updated edition of World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, 2003, and really needing another revision and updating), the blend of the Brut Rosé is 35 percent each pinot noir and pinot meunier and 30 percent chardonnay. What can I say? This is a bountifully effervescent rosé Champagne of the utmost refinement, elegance and finesse, yet its ethereal nature is bolstered by an earthy quality that encompasses notes of limestone and shale and by a dose of subtle nuttiness and toffee, while exquisite tendrils of orange rind, roasted lemon and red currants are threaded through it; zesty acidity keeps it fresh and lively. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. I paid $78; prices around the country vary from about $75 to $90.

Imported by T. Edward Wines, New York.
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Oh, come on, of course there’s an occasion this week that demands a bottle of Champagne! The rumored indictment was not handed down, or at least the judge went easy on you; the auditors didn’t notice that the decimal point was four places to the right; the bills were unmarked — and no one died! Or maybe it’s just the right day and the right time, and the right person is present with whom sharing a bottle of Champagne makes absolute sense. We enjoyed immensely the Duval-Leroy Brut, which I bought as the major ingredient in the French 75 cocktail, but after that purpose you can bet that we didn’t let the rest of the bottle go to waste.

The house of Duval-Leroy has been owned by the same family since 1859. The winery is in the village of Vertus, a Premier Cru village — according to Champagne’s official and somewhat abstruse rating system — located deep in the south of the chardonnay-dominated Cote des Blancs where pinot noir vineyards come back into play. For what might be called a “basic” product, the Duval-Leroy Brut, non-vintage, displays wonderful character and depth to bolster its immediate appeal. Tom Stevenson, in his World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised edition, 2003), says that the blend is 75 percent chardonnay and 25 percent pinot noir. The color is pale blond-gold tremendously enlivened by a taut upward surge of frothing, glinting bubbles. The first aromas occur in the form of acacia, apple, cinnamon toast and chalky/limestone-like minerality; within a few moments notes of fresh biscuits, honeysuckle and ginger emerge. While exhibiting terrific substance and presence, the Duval-Leroy Brut is elegant and suave, yet surprisingly spicy for all its finesse; flavors of roasted lemon and baked pear are permeated by quince and ginger, a touch of toasted almond, a hint of candied grapefruit. The limestone element grows as moments elapse, and, of course, the effervescence and chiming acidity keep it invigorating and engaging. Works wonders with lightly salted popcorn (not buttered!) and a handful of cashews. 12 percent alcohol. Excellent. Prices around the country range from about $28 to $40; I paid $35 in Memphis.

Readers, several weeks ago, on a whim, I embarked on a research project about the classic cocktail called the French 75, named for the World War I-era artillery piece. I have been trying French 75s in bars and restaurants all over town; my research culminates in a series of articles for my Restaurant Insider column that runs in the Saturday Memphis News. The first part occurs this Saturday, July 23. In the meanwhile, because I have swallowed mainly “house versions” of the French 75, including a bizarre rendition that not only contained far more gin than sparkling wine but — sacre bleu! — a healthy pour of grenadine, I decided to make some at home for LL and me. I followed the recipe in my favorite bartender’s guide, the snappily written, perceptive and persnickety Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (Viking, 1998), by Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead.

4 ounces Champagne
1/4 ounce gin
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1/4 ounce lemon juice

Shake gin, Cointreau and lemon juice with cracked ice; strain into a chilled flute. Top with chilled Champagne and garnish with a lemon twist. (Harrington and Moorhead permit a variation with cognac instead of gin, which makes a very different cocktail, you bet.)

The quality of the sparkling wine makes a difference. Most of the French 75s I have sampled lately in local bars have been made with inexpensive California or anonymous French sparkling wine. At one place, a young bartender used Mumm Cordon Rouge by mistake; it certainly made a superior cocktail (though she used too much lemon juice). I employed the Champagne Duval-Leroy Brut — I paid $35 locally — and that was even better. Tanqueray Gin, naturally, not a gin that’s too assertive. I thought I had an old bottle of Cointreau gathering dust in the back of the liquor cabinet, but that was not the case, so I had to buy one of those too, about $27 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle. This was beginning to be not a cheap cocktail, but if you’re going to do something it has to be done right. And of course after we had our excellent cocktails — and they were excellent, the best — we drank most of the rest of the Champagne. And Cointreau lasts practically forever. Gin, not so long in our house.

If you’re going to emulate my efforts, remember that 1/4 ounce equals 1 and 1/2 teaspoons. And, no, you don’t have to pour real Champagne, but do make certain that it’s a good-quality sparkling wine. Use a good peeler to render a very thin strip of lemon peel for the garnish.

A great French 75 is actually easy to make, and it’s a perfect cocktail for summer, light, delicate, effervescent and a little piece of cocktail history.

I bought a bottle of Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut late last year, and we drank it with the New Year’s Day breakfast of fried eggs, country ham, red-eye gravy, grits and biscuits. I posted a review as the 8th Day of my annual “Twelve Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine” series and included it back in January in my “Best Wines of 2010″ post. A few weeks ago, casting about for a Champagne to sip while LL was opening her birthday present, I decided to purchase another bottle from the same store; this bottle is from the same batch that was disgorged in November 2007 after spending 40 months in the bottle on the lees, that is, the spent yeast cells that can contribute depth and character to white wines; it’s common for high-class chardonnays to rest on the lees (sur lie) in barrels for the same reason.

Calculating in reverse, we can conclude that the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut was bottled around July 2004 and that the principle grapes came from vintage 2003, so the product in question is about eight years old. It’s unusual for a non-vintage Champagne to spend 40 months on the lees and also for a Champagne to be made completely from red pinot meunier grapes, which typically form the lesser percentage in a Champagne that uses greater amounts of chardonnay and pinot noir. Pinot meunier is important in Champagne because it buds late and ripens early, qualities that are useful in the region’s demanding wintery climate.

Here’s what I wrote about Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut on Jan 1, 2010:

The color is pale gold-blond with silver highlights; the infinitesimally tiny bubbles surge upward in a dynamic fountain. What is most fascinating about this champagne is the way in which every aspect of it must be abrogated to the concept of steel. It smells like apples, poached pears, thyme and steel. Oh, and it smells like brioche, hazelnuts and steel. And, oh yes, it offers flavors of spiced pear, ginger, lemon curd and steel. It displays the elegance of steel and the power of steel and altogether seems to be an entity for which the adjective “steely” was conceived. Yet there’s warmth here too, a subtle attractiveness; before it goes all high-toned and austere, this champagne kicks up its heels a bit. Excellent. And fascinating. About $70.

Now, 18 months later, this Champagne has lost a great deal of its steely, scintillating minerality and has tamped down its lovely elevated, balletic nature, but it has gained depth and power; previously, it was cool and elegant, though certainly full-bodied and intense, but now it’s warmer, spicier, bursting with mature notes of buttered cinnamon toast, toasted almonds and toffee, roasted lemon, an almost tropical strain of ginger and quince, and a heaping helping of cloves. Fortunately, it retains acid grip and limestone for structural tenacity and an extended finish. 12.5 percent alcohol. I would say that with proper storage the Egly-Ouriet “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru Brut should drink well through 2014. Excellent and still fascinating. About $70 for me locally, though you see it around the country as low as $55.

North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Ca.

… and you don’t have a really long time — like, about six hours — to decide (and buy) what you’re going to offer to your sweetheart — of whatever persuasion, genre, gender, age, nationality — in terms of vinous pleasure at whatever kind of festivity you have planned tonight, whether full-fledged romantic dinner, discreet tête à tête or a discussion about the nature of love vis-a-vis Plato and Augustine in a bosky dell, so let’s cut to the freakin’ chase, brothers and sisters, and remember two words: Brut Rosé, as in Champagne and other forms of sparkling wine. I’m just trying to help.

Image from clipartguide.com

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Three from the actual Champagne region of France:

The pale copper-salmon Bollinger Brut Rosé — Bollinger is purveyor to the British Royal Family, so the label is getting a lot of play this spring — is as high-toned and elegant as brut rose gets; this is very dry, all steel and stones, but with hints of strawberry shortcake and biscuits, dried red currants, an idea more than a notion of cinnamon toast with a touch of orange marmalade, but still supremely poised and sophisticated. It’s a blend of 62 percent pinot noir grapes, 24 chardonnay and 14 pinot meunier. Very impressive for the beloved; he or she will love you for this. Excellent. About $100.
Terlato Wines International. A sample for review.

Not to make this all educationy, but notice the slight difference in the blend for the Taittinger Prestige Rosé (in comparison to the Bollinger Brut Rosé above): 55 percent pinot noir, 30 chardonnay and 15 pinot meunier. Many other factors are involved, natch, but the Taittinger Prestige Rosé comes out a little rounder, a little more creamy/crisp in effect; fresh bread, macerated raspberries, dried strawberries with a touch of something wild like mulberries (dark and musky), and tantalizing elements of orange zest, cloves and almonds. Quite substantial yet effortless and ineffable. Excellent, again, irresistible, a playful kiss that mid-way turns serious. Prices around the U.S.A. range from about $55 to $75.
Kobrand Corp. A sample for review.

Third in this triumvirate is the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé, and the blend here is 60 percent pinot noir, 30 pinot meunier and 10 chardonnay, an interesting reversal of the latter two grapes. The color and bead are entrancing, like a foam of pale golden fireworks seething in a faint tangerine/topaz sheathe that at the bottom is almost transparent. Yes, and add to that enchantment dried strawberries and cranberries (with the latter’s hint of wild tartness), toasted almonds and brioche, an elevating aura of crisp and crystalline acidity, effervescence and transparent-seeming limestone. Really attractive and rated Very Good+. Prices around our nation vary from about $35 to $49, so this is the bargain of the group.
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Not a sample.
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Three alternatives, because as fine as Champagne can be, all the world’s sparkling wine is not produced in that august region nor does it have to be so expensive; you pays yer money and you takes yer choice:

The pale peach/copper colored Mumm Napa Brut Rosé, Napa Valley, used to be the winery’s Blanc de Noirs, but Brut Rose, after all, sounds a little more romantic and enticing. Made from 85 percent pinot noir grapes and 15 percent chardonnay, this is boldly spicy, intense, with well-wrought heft and dimension; strawberry/raspberry with dried red currants, orange zest, spiced tea; dry, crisp, stony, smoky. Mesmerizing stream of tiny bubbles; dynamic effervescence and tone, gratifying concentration and weight; close to elegant. Excellent. About $24, though often discounted as low as $19.
Not a sample.

After its torrent of tiny glistening bubbles in a pale copper/onion skin hue, the Scharffenberger Brut Rosé, Mendocino County (54 percent pinot noir, 46 chardonnay), is refined and polished, exquisitely proportioned in its emphasis on spareness and suppleness; layers of limestone and flint envelop notes of dried raspberries and red currants, orange zest and orange Pekoe tea buoyed by lively acidity; a few minutes in the glass unfold more ripeness and fleshiness, as if the fruit were more spiced and macerated than dried. Really charming. Very Good+. Suggested retail price is about $25, though I (gratefully) paid $19.
Not a sample, obviously.

I tasted — i.e., drank all I could get my hands on — of the Alma Negra Malbec Rosé 2009 back in October when I was in its home region of Mendoza, Argentina, and I was pleased to find that it’s available in the U.S. of A., though only 2,000 cases were produced, so you may have to make a few phone calls in its behalf. This is absolutely delightful, though quite subtle, a weaving of dried strawberries with peach, orange rind, hints of toasted almonds and a bit of almond blossom; dry and thoroughly laced with limestone yet soft in texture, almost cloud-like, so suave and drinkable. Plus, it has this great, mysterious packaging! Very Good+. About $20, though you can find it as low as $17.
Imported by Winebow, Inc.
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Following a godlike whim, I sprang for a bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 for New Year’s Eve, and while you may call be a creature touched by the wing of madness, I’m not sorry, nor is LL. We reveled in the damned stuff!

Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne is one of the region’s legendary luxury products, along with such hallowed tête de cuvée or grand marque Champagnes as Moët et Chandon’s Dom Perignon; Louis Roederer Cristal; Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill; Krug Clos de Mesnil; Veuve Cliquot La Grande Dame; Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne; Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle “La Cuvée”; Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises; and, perhaps in a class by itself, Salon. These rare and costly bottles of bubbly are the stuff of dreams and well-tended expense accounts, beloved by hip-hop artists and soccer idols, tsars and potentates.

What makes a truly great Champagne great are the same factors that make any wine truly great: the most impressive character, tone and presence derived from exceptional vineyards and wedded to impeccable craftsmanship. Sounds easy!

Taittinger traces its origin to 1743 and founder Jacques Fourneaux. Almost 200 years later, that is in 1932, the house was acquired by Pierre Taittinger, who was also able, because of the hard times, to buy a number of important vineyards, as well as the 13th Century chateau of the Comtes de Champagne. Taittinger first produced its flagship Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut, named for Thibaut IV whose device appears on the label and neck, from the vintage of 1952. It is made completely from chardonnay grapes, primarily from Grand Cru vineyards, though not all owned by the company. The Champagnes of Taittinger are more notable for finesse and elegance than for power and substance, yet while Comtes de Champagne evokes that principle it expands on those qualities into awesome realms of intensity, purity and dimension.

Tom Stevenson, in World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised and updated edition, 2003), says, ” … it is a crime to drink this wine before its tenth birthday; 15 to 20 years is the optimum window to show both freshness and complexity, and the best vintages keep improving for at least 30 years.” Vintage 1998 was excellent in Champagne, though perhaps not spectacular like 1996. At least by popping the cork after 12 years we weren’t committing infanticide.

Our bottle of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut 1998 — which we accompanied with 1.06 ounces of Royal Osetra caviar from Petrossian in New York on lightly toasted slices of baguette — opened almost shyly. At 12 years old, the color was still pale gold but radiant, while the surge of tiny, foaming bubbles was shamelessly prolific and entrancing. The bouquet, however, took a few moments to gently unfurl its seductive aromas of apple and pear, roasted lemon and acacia flower, all ensconced in an immense manifestation of cinnamon toast and freshly baked biscuits slathered with honey; in three words — To Die For. All right, I used the word “honey,” though my implication is not sweetness but richness, and richness that’s fairly tightly focused, rather than broad and general, since this is a Champagne composed of myriad tissues of delicacies woven into a fabric that wonderfully balances — oops, I automatically switched tenses for a sense of immediacy! — the ephemeral and evanescent and elegant with a dynamic structure of staggering acidity and monumental (but ever so lacy) limestone. So in body and flavor that feeling and form of balance toes the line from beginning to end: bracing as a sea-breeze over a salt marsh yet succulent as hazelnut cream and warm brioche; earthy as a crushed walnut yet dainty as a petal of orange blossom. My point is the whatever profundities Comtes de Champagne 1998 embodies, it remains the epitome of grace and refinement and high style. Drink now through 2018 to ’20. Exceptional.

As to price, I paid $179, but around the country Comtes de Champagne 1998 can be found as low as $150 and as towering as $300. Seen in those terms, I sort of got a bargain.

Imported by Kobrand Corp., New York.

What could be more straightforward than that? Not that all lists aren’t arbitrary in some degree, but after going through all the posts from 2010 on this blog several times and doing some cogitating and sighing and reluctant winnowing, here they are, The 50 Best Wines of 2010, as experienced by me and written about last year. Wines that I tasted in 2010 but haven’t written about yet will not show up on this list, nor will older vintages that I was lucky enough to taste, which I do damned little enough anyway. The order is wines I rated Exceptional, alphabetically, followed by wines I rated Excellent, alphabetically. Where I think such factors might be helpful, I list percentages of grapes and, for limited edition wines, the case production, if I know it. Prices begin at about $25 and go up to $200, with most, however, in the $30s, $40s and $50s.
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<>Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Sonoma Valley. Richard Arrowood’s new label. 996 cases. Exceptional. About $80.

<>Catena Alta Adrianna Chardonnay 2008, Mendoza, Argentina. Exceptional. About $35. (Winebow, New York)

<>Joseph Drouhin Chablis-Vaudésir Grand Cru 2007, Chablis, France. 130 six-bottle cases imported. Exceptional. About $72. (Dreydus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Exceptional. About $150, though prices around the country range up to $225. (Winebow, New York)

<>Vincent Girardin Corton Renardes Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes 2007, Burgundy, France. Exceptional. About $70. (Vineyard Brands, Birmingham, Ala.)

<>Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2008, Clare Valley, Australia. Exceptional. About $38. (USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection)

<>Morgan Winery Double L Vineyard Syrah 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 75 cases. Exceptional. About $40.

<>Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 974 cases. Exceptional. About $48.

<>Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc 2008, St. Helena, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $32.

<>Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. 275 cases. Exceptional. About $75.

<>Rochioli Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,200 cases. Exceptional. About $60.

<>Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 490 cases. Exceptional. About $40.
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<>Alma Negra Misterio 2007, Mendoza, Argentina. The red grapes in this blend are never revealed, but count on malbec, cabernet franc and bonarda. Excellent. About $30-$33. (Winbow, New York)

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 195 cases. Excellent. About $58.

<>Francois Billion Grand Cru Cuvée de Reserve Brut Cépage Chardonnay (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $60. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France. Excellent. About $65. (Terlato Wines International, Lake Bluff, Ill.)

<>Brovia Sorí del Drago Barbera d’Asti 2007, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $20-$28. (Neal Rosenthal, New York)

<>Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos de Mouches (blanc) 2007, Burgundy, France. 600 cases imported. Excellent. $100-$110. (Dreyfus, Ashby & Sons, New York)

<>Easton Old Vines Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, Amador County. “Old Vines” meaning back to 1865. Excellent. About $28.

<>Egly-Ouriet Brut “Les Vignes de Vrigny” (nonvintage). Champagne, France. Made, unusually, from all pinot meunier grapes. Excellent. About $70. (North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>En Route “Les Pommiers” Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. 1,993 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Bodegas Fariña Gran Dama de Toro 2004, Toro, Spain. Tempranillo with six percent garnacha. Excellent. About $45. (Specialty Cellars, Santa Fe Springs, Cal.)

<>Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuisse 2008, Burgundy, France. Excellent. About $30. (Kobrand, New York)

<>Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Veuve Fourny Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Pinot noir with a dollop of chardonnay. Excellent. About $55. (Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.)

<>Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. 407 cases. Excellent. About $46.

<>Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2006, Piedmont, Italy. Excellent. $45-$55. (Dalla Terra Winery Direct, Napa, Cal.)

<>Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel 2007, Napa Valley. Excellent. About $35.

<>Haton et Fils “Cuvée Rene Haton” Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut (nonvintage), Champagne, France. Excellent. About $62. (William-Harrison Imports, Manassas, Va.)

<>Heller Estate Pinot Noir 2007, Carmel Valley, Monterey County. 154 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Domaine Huet Brut Vouvray Petillant 2002, Loire Valley, France. Excellent. About $30-$35. (Robert Chadderdon Selections, New York)

<>Iron Horse Brut Rosé 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County. 81 percent pinot noir/19 percent chardonnay. 950 cases. Excellent. About $50.

<>Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. With 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot, 1 percent malbec. Excellent. About $52.

<>Kruger-Rumf Munsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett 2008, Nahe, Germany. Excellent. About $22-$25. (Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.)

<>Margerum Rosé 2009, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara County. 100 cases. Excellent. About $21.

<>Mendel Semillon 2009, Mendoza, Argentina, Excellent. About $25. (Vine Connection, Sausalito, Cal.)

<>Misty Oaks Jones Road Cabernet Franc 2008, Umpqua Valley, Oregon. 75 cases. Excellent. About $28.

<>Oakville Ranch Robert’s Blend Cabernet Franc 2005, Napa Valley. With 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. 393 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $90.

<>Joseph Phelps Insignia 2006, Napa Valley. Excellent. about $200.

<>Renaissance Late Harvest Riesling 1992, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. Renaissance holds wines longer than any other winery; this dessert wine was released in 2008. Production was 364 cases of half-bottles. Excellent. About $35.

<>Renaissance Vin de Terroir Roussanne 2006, Sierra Foothills, North Yuba. 63 cases. Excellent. About $45.

<>Ridge Vineyards Three Valleys 2008, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $22.

<>St. Urban-Hof Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Piesling Auslese 2007, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. Excellent. About $55. (HB Wine Merchants, New York)

<>Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvée Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $42.

<>Talbott Logan Pinot Noir 2008, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Excellent. About $25.

<>Tardieu-Laurent Les Becs Fins 2008, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, France. 50 percent syrah/50 percent grenache. 1,008 cases imported. Excellent. About $22. (Wilson-Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.)

<>Chateau Tour de Farges Vin Doux Natural 2006, Muscat de Lunel, France. Excellent. About $24. (Martine’s Wines, Novato, Cal.)

<>V. Sattui Black-Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley. 400 cases. Available at the winery or mail order. Excellent. About $40.

<>Yangarra Estate Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, Australia. 500 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29. (Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.)
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Coming Next: 25 Fantastic Wine Bargains.

It’s a bit disconcerting to see marketing nicknames on the labels of a real Champagne made in the, you know, actual region of Champagne. Not that making and selling Champagne isn’t a business; of course marketing is called for, as in any other business. And of course there’s not a thing wrong with indicating the different types of Champagne you make with different colored capsules; that makes sense. To call the product by that color on the label, however, seems a trifle crass. I’m referring to the Heidsieck & Co. Monopole “Blue Top” Brut. One wonders if the marketing people behind this scheme hope that “Blue Top” will become a by-word, as in a guy sidles up to the bar and sings out, “Barkeep, pour me a slender flute of Blue Top!” And the bartender sings back, “Need a pop? Try Blue Top!” (My model is: “What’s the word? Thunderbird!”) Heidsieck Monopole also has a “Silver Top” (Brut Reserve), “Rose Top” (Brut Rosé), “Green Top” (Demi Sec), “Red Top” (Sec) and “Gold Top” (Vintage Brut).

Heidsieck & Co Monopole, Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck all trace their origins to Florens-Louis Heidsieck, who established the company in 1785. I won’t delve into the multi-tangled history of the three houses and how they became separated by reasons of birth and marriage and other familial and non-familial relationships. It’s sufficient to say that Charles Heidsieck and Piper-Heidsieck are owned by Remy-Cointreau, while Heidsieck & Co. Monopole is owned by Vranken Pommery.

So, to the bottle in question.

I was skeptical, but gradually Heidsieck Monopole “Blue Top” Brut won me over. Pinot noir is the backbone of this house; the composition here is 70 percent pinot noir, 20 percent chardonnay and 10 percent pinot meunier. We’re not talking about utter refinement or elegance in this Champagne; rather, it makes its point by assertive substance and presence. The color is pale gold; seemingly billions of teeny-tiny bubbles course upward in a twisting fountain. The effect of “Blue Top” is very toasty and yeasty, and the bouquet offers notes of pears and roasted lemon, almond peel and almond blossom and a winsome note of honeysuckle and hazelnuts. Minerality comes right up behind, and in the mouth this crisp, dry Champagne practically balloons with crystalline acidity, rampant limestone and chalk and immense reserves of spice, as in spiced citrus flavors, spice cake and a final touch of grapefruit baked with brown sugar and cloves. No, this is not some shivery, silvery, ultra-blond sophisticate, but the sense of dynamism and earthiness that “Blue Top” conveys is definitely fun. Excellent. About $40 in my town but down-priced from $25 to $35 in cities all over our great nation.

Imported by Vranken Pommery America, New York. Tried once at a retailer’s tasting and once from a sample for review (not from the importer).

Tonight is the Big Eve, the occasion upon which one year abruptly terminates and another quickly takes its place; the night for which all forms of sparkling wine were invented. Believe me, you’ll need that glass of bubbly at midnight when you’re standing in a packed room singing “Auld Lang Syne” with a bunch of people you only see once a decade.

Let me offer you, My Readers, four examples of different sorts of sparkling wines, available at different prices and appropriate for different events. They hail from Spain, Italy, Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley and Champagne, as in France. With the exception of the Fourny Brut Rosé, these were samples for review.
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Did you invite a mob over tonight? Say the Chilean miners and their wives as well as the combined contestants of Survivor: Surface of the Sun, American Idolatry and The Biggest Loser in History? No need to drop a bundle on your bubbly. Hie thyself tothe nearest wine and liquor store and snap up several cases of the Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, a CAVA sparkling wine from Spain that’s as amazing for its quality as it is for its price, or vice versa. This is a typical CAVA blend of 50 percent macabeo grapes, 35 percent parellada and 15 percent xarel-lo, hands downs my favorite grape name. The color is pale straw-blond. Bubbles are prolific, though the ones that cling to the inside of the glass are slightly larger than the teensy ones that froth up through the middle. It’s a stones and bones sparkler, trifling with sweetness at the entry but immediately segueing into vibrant, crisp dryness buoyed by scintillating limestone. Roasted lemon and lemon balm, hints of tangerine and orange zest, a faint pass at a floral element: all of these qualities add up to lovely charm and delicacy. Very Good. About $10 or $11, but often discounted around the country to $8 or $9.

Imported by Freixenet USA, Sonoma, Cal.
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Nino Franco Rustico is consistently one of my favorite prosecco sparkling wines. The grape is called prosecco and so is the product, which is made in the Veneto region in Northeast Italy. Rather than being made in the champagne method of seccond fermentation in the bottle, prosecco is made in the Charmat process in which the second fermentation, which produces the bubbles, occurs in large tanks. The pale straw-gold Nino Franco Rustico is a lightly yet persistently sparkling wine that’s delicate and elegant, but a little earthy, bursting with almond blossom and citrus notes, and lemon-pear flavors resting on a vigorous bed of limestone. Charming, yet with gratifying character. Very Good+. About $17 to $20.

Imported by VinDivino, Chicago.
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Let’s say first that the J Brut Rosé, Russian River Valley, is not just effervescent but exhilarating; at the same time, it embodies a sense of engaging elegance and suavity. This is a blend of 56 percent pinot noir and 44 percent chardonnay. The color is pale strawberry-blond; the bouquet exudes subtle scents of smoky peach, strawberry and dried red currants permeated by fresh biscuits, lightly buttered cinnamon toast and the skins of roasted almonds (think of a slim nuance of sweet, bitter and nutty), all backed by clean fresh limestone-like minerality. This is ripe and fleshy in the mouth, an almost thrilling amalgam of tangerine, spiced peach and lime peel supervised rather smartly by crisp acidity and that ever-present limestone element. The finish is long, balanced and lively. We were drinking the J Brut Rosé while snacking on a Spanish cocktail mix that included almonds, dried chickpeas, dried favas and dried corn, with lots of salt and spice. Yeah, that was good. Excellent. About $35.
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Champagne Rosé Premier Cru de Vve Fourny et Fils Vertus Brut — to give its full name — is my new favorite Champagne. I had a sip at a tasting, and when I left I went promptly to a store and bought a bottle. Fourny is a small, family-owned house, founded in 1856, in the village of Vertus; its products are made only from Premier Cru vineyards. The color is very pale sunset peach with a shimmering core of lightly tarnished silver; the bubbles surge upward in a constant tempest of glinting froth. Except for a dollop of chardonnay, this is all pinot noir. The typical elements of a brut rosé Champagne are present — strawberry, dried red currants, orange zest — but packed with roasted lemon, cloves, lilac, crystallized ginger and spiced quince jam, this attractive array subdued, however, to a higher purpose of purity, intensity and elegance. You know how it is with some wines, of whatever type –still, sparkling; red, white — they just flat-out look and smell and feel great, exuding impeccable tone, integrity and confidence, as well as pleasure and delight; that’s the case with this. Excellent. I paid about $55; prices on the Internet range from about $45 to $60.

Imported by Kermit Lynch, Berkeley, Cal.
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Whoa, My Readers, I just realized that this is the last post of 2010. Please have a safe, happy and festive New Year’s Eve and don’t forget to fire up the pot for your blackeyed peas, hog jowl and turnip greens tomorrow.
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